2020 Visions: The Resurgence Of Grime

2020 Visions: The Resurgence Of Grime

The decade that saw the glass ceiling shattered...

Grime is arguably our most exciting homegrown genre since punk, a truly DIY sound that grew out of UK traditions - London’s pirate radio stations and tower blocks that incubated rap crews; jungle and garage raves; 2-step, ragga, dancehall and the sound system tradition of DJ and MC; pressing white labels and self-distributing around the city’s record stores.

The genre’s early pioneers used easily accessible technology - programmes found on games consoles of the late-1990s and cheap kit plugged into their parents’ PCs - to reflect the sounds and atmosphere of their environment, set to 140BPM: a sonic landscape mirroring the experience of urban youth at the turn of the Millennium.

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Founding tracks like ‘Know We’ and ‘Eskimo’, both powered by Wiley, galvanised the new sound, which rapidly shot from the fringes into public consciousness with Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 Mercury Prize-winning debut, ‘Boy In Da Corner’. Grime had its origin story in garage crews like So Solid and Pay As U Go Cartel - whose darker spin on the era’s champagne-popping, chart-topping garage paved the way for grime - and its leaders in Wiley and Dizzee.

It had its prodigal sons in people like Chipmunk - clashing with MCs on pirate radio aged just 14 - its crews like Roll Deep, Ruff Sqwad, and a few years later Boy Better Know, its duos like Newham Generals, and its advocates in DJs like Geeneus and Slimzee on Rinse FM. Grime was popping like nothing the UK had seen in decades, and had sprung from the grassroots rather than the record label boardroom.

But after this explosion in the early 2000s, the burgeoning sound lost its way. Somewhere around 2007 and by the start of this decade, grime seemed to be wandering in the wilderness. The genre, and many of its stars, had gone beyond simply crossing over into the mainstream. They were the mainstream.

Dizzee, for example, was propelled to superstardom via a string of crowd-pleasing hits - ‘Dance Wiv Me’, ‘Bonkers, ‘Holiday’ - and collaborations with mainstream DJs and artists like Calvin Harris, Armand Van Helden and Florence And The Machine, signing a multi-million deal with Universal in 2011.

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Dizzee wasn’t the only one getting in with the majors: in 2008 Chipmunk (soon to be Chip) signed to Sony just before his 18th birthday on a high figure deal for his debut album, and the following year bagged the UK record for most top 10 hits in 2009, with five hit singles.

In fact, 2009 saw Number One singles from Dizzee and Tinchy as well as Chipmunk, something that just a few years earlier would be unimaginable. This period also saw the rise of ‘electro grime’, which a cynic might see as simply a vehicle for MCs to break into the charts, and singles like Wiley’s ‘Wearing My Rolex‘ and Tinchy’s ‘Stryderman’.

In this vein, Skepta released his pop-leaning ‘Microphone Champion’ LP in 2009, from which came ‘Rolex Sweep’, showing how far it could be said grime had drifted from its roots. There are other signs of change too, like Rinse FM gaining a legal broadcast licence, and Channel U’s rebrand and name change, becoming Channel AKA.

But despite a notable drift, at the start of this decade grime still hadn’t lost its anger and distrust - even disdain - of authority. The 2011 London riots provoked responses from the likes of Wiley and Lethal B (now Bizzle), making insightful, direct links between government cuts and the treatment of inner-city communities, and the violence and illegality seen on the streets during the riots.

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The original spirit was still bubbling under in the music too. Away from the electro-grime making a bid for chart success, Skepta and Jme started digging back into their roots, making old school beats using original pieces of kit. Hidden away in the background, they began work on ‘That’s Not Me’, sewing the seeds for grime’s comeback.

And in 2012, while on the one hand Dizzee performed ‘Bonkers’ at the London Olympics opening ceremony to a TV audience of 900 million people (in almost exactly the same spot where, nine years earlier, he was MCing on Deja Vu FM, clashing with Crazy Titch), Boy Better Know (including Wiley) won Red Bull’s Culture Clash by flexing the old speed and agility they’d honed on turn-of-the-Millenium pirate radio stations, their MC skills beating the likes of legendary roots and culture sound system Channel One. The original driving force behind grime was still there, and now the sound entered what could be seen as a second golden age: going back to its roots while pushing things forward with new-found confidence and determination to stay true to the culture.

Skepta’s 2014 hit ‘That’s Not Me’ went platinum, sampling old Wiley tracks and using a video made by Rooney of Risky Roadz - the DVD series that had captured grime’s ascendance on camera more than a decade earlier. The track, its production, and its visuals are a real symbol of how this next-gen strand of grime honoured and celebrated - not to mention incorporated - its own history, rather than running from it towards the pop charts.

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In the same year, Meridian Dan (from the Meridian estate in Tottenham, where Skepta and JME grew up) released ‘German Whip’, a track that became a huge summer hit, and arguably helped set the stage for grime’s resurgence, as well as its popularity at mainstream festivals, taking the genre from the club to the festival stage.

A year later Stormzy made ‘Shut Up’ using ‘Functions On The Low’, a 2004 white label produced by XTC, an associate of Ruff Squad - another celebration of grime’s original pioneers and their homemade beats, while managing to feel fresh and forward-looking.

From the middle of this decade, grime went from strength to strength. In 2016, Skepta’s ‘Konnichiwa’ album won the Mercury Music Prize, coming round full circle on Dizzee’s 2003 victory just over a decade since grime’s first wave crashed onto the global stage. In keeping with this newly rediscovered pride in grime’s roots, the record was unashamed in its Britishness, folding in homegrown slang with explosive, grimy beats, referencing everything from Fireman Sam to old-fashioned British idioms like “spend a penny”.

Kano - one of the genre’s OG MCs, who appeared on Wiley’s 2004 debut album ‘Treddin’ On Thin Ice’ - also played with ideas of Britishness (and ‘Londonness’, if that’s a word) on his Mercury-nominated album of the same year, ‘Made In The Manor’. His lyrics toyed with Cockney and Jamaican patois, as well as contemporary London slang - sometimes sung, sometimes spat - darting from old school grime bangers to elegantly heartfelt, nostalgic almost-ballads, revealing a love for his city, his community, and his culture.

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Galvanising this resurgence, in 2017 Stormzy - one of the second generation of grime MCs who, along with the likes of AJ Tracey, Novelist and Dave, grew up listening to the genre’s first wave - released ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’. Like Kano and Skepta, he too was bold enough to push boundaries while honouring what went before him. Cold-as-ice production, breakneck beats, infectious swagger (‘Big For Your Boots’ or ‘First Things First’) and sheer anger (‘Shut Up’) were all there, but so too were unexpected samples and ethereal moments like ‘Blinded By Your Grace’.

This year has seen the resurgence of grime realised in some real cultural ‘moments’: Dave’s Mercury-winning ‘Psychodrama’ delved into private, personal pain as well as wider public injustice, the album using the framework of a therapy session in which to follow different strands of thought. The MC from Streatham also brought the world one of Glastonbury Festival’s stand out moments when he plucked a fan from the crowd to rap on stage with him.

The event’s true highlight, though, was when another young man from South London, Stormzy, victoriously took to the Pyramid Stage, dazzling a huge mainstream audience (both at Glastonbury and on television) with his incredible stage show that, like his music, nodded both to his roots and to the wider world.

Ticker tape ran behind him on a huge screen with the names of South London boroughs; a beautiful ballet interlude highlighted the fact that black ballet dancers now (finally) have shoes designed to match their skin tone; a huge gospel choir joined him alongside dancers and kids popping wheelies on their bikes. As well as pronouncing this the “greatest night of my life,” Stormzy also chose this moment to pay tribute to all the grime artists that paved the way for him, and are coming up now.

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This year also saw the release of Kano’s magnificent ‘Hoodies All Summer’, continuing the bold experimentation we saw on ‘Made In The Manor’, bringing in samples from the likes of civil rights activist Darcus Howe and exploring socio-political issues, as well as celebrating his grime roots with tracks like ‘Class Of Deja’ featuring D Double and Ghetts, a full-throated salute to Deja Vu FM and all it did for UK music.

Kano also came back to our screens in Top Boy - along with Dave and new UK rap royalty Little Simz, and Asher D of So Solid Crew, who Wiley credited with kickstarting grime via their 2000 track ‘Oh No (That’s the Word)’ - this time internationally via Netflix rather than the UK-only Channel 4, further underlining how grime has now embedded itself into mainstream culture while staying true to its roots.

Now, after a decade of the genre truly rediscovering and re-embracing itself, we’re all initiated. All blinded by grime’s grace.

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Words: Emma Finamore

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